Dean: Clinton or Obama Will Be Firm Leader for Nomination by July

Dean says the next contests will put one Democrat in the driver's seat going into the convention.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

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Once the Democratic primaries conclude in early June, the superdelegates will make their final decisions and put either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama on a clear path to the party's presidential nomination, says Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Dean told U.S. News that he expects the unpledged delegates to clarify their positions by July 1, after the final 10 nominating contests are held, and that will make the national convention in Denver much less contentious than is now feared.

Dean said last week's agreement between the DNC and party leaders in Florida and Michigan "moved the ball a lot." Even though there still isn't a consensus on how to qualify the delegates chosen in those two states' disputed earlier-than-allowed primaries, Dean said all sides now agree that it's in the best interest of the party and the eventual nominee to seat the delegates in some way. What happened last week wasn't a smashing breakthrough, since it involved little more than expressions of goodwill, an agreement by the DNC to seat the two delegations somehow, and a commitment to allot them hotel rooms in Denver, the convention site. What heartened Dean was the notion that, as in international diplomacy, such small "confidence building" steps often lead to bigger steps later.

It appears that holding new primaries has been ruled out by Florida and Michigan officials, but Dean says the two early states still must be penalized for breaking the party's rules and holding their primaries too early. Breaking those rules resulted in the disqualification of all their delegates, and all the major presidential candidates agreed not to campaign in the disputed states. Clinton ended up winning the popular votes in both and now wants to count their delegates, but Dean is holding to his view that both primaries were fatally flawed. Obama, leading narrowly in the overall delegate count, agrees.

But Dean says a compromise is possible. There is, for example, increasing discussion within the party of allowing each delegate chosen in the primaries to cast a half vote and each superdelegate to retain full voting privileges.

The big stumbling block remains getting agreement from the Clinton and Obama campaigns. "The candidates are not in the mood to negotiate right now" as they continue to fight it out state by state for the nomination," Dean said in the interview. Dean predicted that in the end, there will be a compromise before the convention, but "nobody will be completely happy."

After the next round of contests, starting with Pennsylvania's primary April 22 and ending with Puerto Rico, Montana, and South Dakota in early June, the remaining uncommitted superdelegates (elected officials and party activists chosen independently of primaries and caucuses), Dean predicts, will move toward a candidate. And he says that will put Clinton or Obama firmly in the driver's seat.

"We have about 800 unpledged delegates, and about 460 of them have already said who they're going to be for, so if the other 340 would say who they're going to be for, then we'd be all set," Dean told ABC's This Week on Sunday. "That's been going on. Nobody has protested that so far. So I think that should continue to go on, people should continue to say who they're for, and the process should move forward. But the most important people of all are the voters. We've got...nine states plus Puerto Rico left to go, and I think the voters ought to have their say."

Dean also argued that the long fight for the Democratic nomination has been good for the party because it has generated intense excitement and drawn hundreds of thousands of new voters to the party. "We're going to be in great shape," Dean said on ABC. "I know the higher echelons of the Democratic Party are wringing their hands over this. The fact of the matter is we're having record turnouts everywhere. We get to run an election in Pennsylvania four or five months before the big election. We haven't done that in years. I think this is actually going to make it easier for us to win as long as we keep the party together."